Copenhagen Consensus 2012

Do We Really Need To Reduce Salt Consumption?

Slate readers debate the Copenhagen Consensus priorities for fighting chronic disease.

The idea behind Copenhagen Consensus 2012 is to prioritize some of the world’s most important spending, with the latest economic analysis providing us with an input as to which needs should be met first. In a series of articles, I am drawing on new research papers that present the costs and benefits of the smartest ways to respond to global challenges. Each article has a poll, and Slate readers can vote on the investments that they believe should be the highest priorities—along with those that should not. You can read more about the rationale behind the project here.

Over the course of the series, we will see how readers rank responses to a range of challenges, and at the end we will identify the investments that Slate readers think should be the highest priority. We will be able to contrast these with the findings of a panel of Nobel laureate economists.

In the first part of this series of articles, we looked at ways to respond to the challenge of hunger and malnutrition. Yesterday, we added responses to chronic disease to the mix.

The proposed investment that created the most debate among readers was efforts to reduce salt consumption. Some readers questioned the causal link between salt and chronic disease.

The authors of the paper rely on research showing that high blood pressure is a significant chronic disease risk factor, responsible for at least 50 percent of cardiovascular disease, particularly stroke, and ischemic heart disease. Reduction in salt intake is a key factor in reducing hypertension. As some commenters pointed out, moderate salt reduction can lower systolic blood pressure by small but meaningful amounts.

I would underscore the point that reduction in salt levels can occur either at the table or in the factory, and there are some promising attempts to do the latter going on right now, particularly in Latin America. We know that reductions in the salt level of processed foods has already taken place (with very little consumer resistance) in the United States and in other developed countries.

So, after considering the best ways to fight against hunger and chronic disease, what do Slate readers think are the most urgent investments?

So far, they have ranked micronutrient interventions in the first place, with tobacco taxation very closely behind. These and the third-ranked investment of increased Hepatitis B immunization are all very cheap with considerable benefits: at the top of the priority list, readers largely seem to be agreeing with the economists’ research into costs and benefits.

Middle-ranked investments are R&D to increase agricultural output, and providing either a generic pill or low-cost pills for heart disease.

At the bottom of the list (so far) are: increasing competition in the fertilizer market, a text message system for farmer productivity, and—at the very bottom—the salt reduction campaign.

As one Slate reader put it, it seems there is a strong backing to “leave the salt shaker alone”! I’m excited to see how the rankings change as readers continue to consider the smartest investment options in the fight against infectious disease, today.